It’s been five months, and Brianna Pintens is still not sure what was more revolting: being grabbed by a line cook at Del Posto, where she worked as a server, or the way that a manager dismissed her complaint.
“[She] rolled her eyes at me,” she told Eater. “I told her what happened, and that he’d been asking me out and making comments about my looks for a year, to the point that it became harassing, and her response was, ‘You realize you’re turning this into an HR situation. Do you really want to do this?’” On September 7, after just over a year working there, and weeks after the line cook lunged at her, squeezed her in a bear hug, and told her that her appearance was “driving me crazy,” Pintens quit.
Pintens is one of seven current and former employees of Del Posto — Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Michelin-starred restaurant, often considered the company’s fine dining crown jewel — who told Eater that they either endured or witnessed degrading and dismissive comments toward women, and, in some cases, inappropriate touching from coworkers.
Last week, in the wake of an Eater investigation into Batali’s alleged sexual misconduct, the celebrity chef stepped away from his restaurant empire and was fired as the co-host of The Chew. Even though Batali is no longer involved in day-to-day operations at his restaurants, dozens of current and former employees across the B&B empire, from restaurants including Babbo, Otto, Lupa, Del Posto, and Las Vegas’s B&B Ristorante and Carnevino, told Eater that issues of misconduct span the last 15 years, and that the problems run deeper than one man.
Staffers allege that Batali and his longtime business partner Joe Bastianich, who remains involved in the restaurants, are the architects of a male-dominated “boys’ club” environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater that Batali and Bastianich epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.
The partners’ behavior laid the foundation for myriad issues, staffers claim: Problem employees who degraded staffers with sexual language or physical touching stayed at the company for years — even earning promotions — while women and men who experienced misconduct felt that they had little recourse.
Complaining, staffers say, was implicitly discouraged; most of the dozens of staffers who spoke with Eater feared repercussions, like being ostracized, fired, or even blacklisted from the restaurant industry entirely, if they filed formal grievances. The fear of being banned from other employment remains; many people spoke only under the condition of anonymity, though Eater verified their identities and employment at the restaurants.
In a new statement to Eater, Batali said that he has always wanted people working at the restaurants “to feel comfortable and safe”: “I now realize that my completely inappropriate behavior impacted the behavior of others who worked in the restaurants. I am truly sorry and am very ashamed. It was never my intention to humiliate, cause discomfort or pain to anyone in the operations in any way.”
According to Eater interviews with dozens of people, word of Batali’s alleged groping and his general treatment of women had spread widely within the industry over the last two decades. Bastianich, who’s partnered with Batali since 1998, denied via a spokesperson that he had ever witnessed Batali grope an employee; he also said that he had “never heard” accusations of Batali’s sexual misconduct until the past week, and that the stories “have shaken me to the core.”
Bastianich admitted, though, that he had “heard [Batali] say inappropriate things” to staffers, and that he “should have done more” to criticize Batali. “I’m proud of what our teams accomplish every day, and I’ve always tried to show respect for them and their work,” Bastianich said in a statement. “It pains me that some employees feel differently, and I’m reexamining my own behavior to ensure that everyone I work with feels that respect.”
In an additional statement to Eater, B&B Hospitality Group — the company that manages about 24 restaurants owned by Batali, Bastianich, and others — said that while the company has had sexual harassment policies and training in place for over a decade, “it has become clear that we need to improve our culture.” More senior people will be hired to oversee operations, and an outside firm will survey staff to “examine the compliance” of various employees regarding the sexual harassment policies, the company said. Batali said he considered the steps “significant” and “meaningful.”
In a new development, LA-based chef Nancy Silverton and New York-based chef Lidia Bastianich, both celebrities in their own right, will be taking on leadership roles “to help ensure everyone has a safe and positive workplace and to steer our culinary direction,” B&B’s statement said. Lidia Bastianich, Joe’s mother, has been a partner in many B&B Hospitality restaurants since its inception; Silverton started the Mozza empire with Batali and Bastianich in 2007. Silverton, multiple people who worked for the Mozza restaurants in LA said, has a reputation among staff for being a champion of women.
“We have fallen short in creating an environment where every employee feels comfortable reporting complaints,” B&B’s statement said. “And we have fallen short at times when enforcing our policies. We are already taking steps to change.”
A recent study showed that restaurant employees file more sexual harassment claims than people in any other industry — and at B&B restaurants, many of which rank among the most high-profile eateries in the country, misconduct has been prolific for years, though most of it has gone unreported, more than a dozen sources said. While multiple people said they generally had a good experience at the company and cultures varied restaurant to restaurant, they still alleged that B&B generally favored men.
Among the first public renderings of this environment was Bill Buford’s seminal 2006 book Heat, which details the earlier years of Babbo, the popular upscale Greenwich Village restaurant that opened nearly 20 years ago, and which, staffers say, was notorious for wild partying. In an incident relayed in the book, a prep chef named Elisa Sarno complained to Batali about a particularly crude chef who used shorthand like “rape” for broccoli rabe (which is sometimes known as cima di rape in Italian, but is pronounced “rawpay”) and who gave lewd accounts about encounters with sex workers. Buford writes: “Batali told her there was nothing he could do. ‘Really, Elisa, this is New York, get used to it.’” The chef was moved to another restaurant owned by Joe and his mother Lidia Bastianich — and then eventually fired, Lidia told Buford, for “squeezing the butts of waitresses and asking them to perform oral sex.”
Since then, this pattern has repeated itself at Babbo. Five men and women who worked at the restaurant over the last 12 years, many of whom have worked in multiple high-end restaurants, claim that the Babbo kitchen is the most inappropriate environment they had ever worked in; several of them also called it the “most abusive” one they ever worked in.
The kitchen, helmed by executive chef Frank Langello — who is also described as “abusive” in Heat — was a “rat’s nest of harassment,” said one woman who worked in the kitchen during the mid-2000s. She said Langello was “relentless” in bullying both women and men — in particular, he needled women with sexual comments, teased them about their sex lives, and unnecessarily commented on their appearance.
A former male staffer said that when Langello showed women how to season a steak, he would rub the steaks “lewdly, stroking the meat by his crotch.”
Langello would also do “bizarre, childish” things, like put his finger in women’s ears in a sexual manner, the former female employee alleges. “Frank seemed to like humiliating people,” she said.
Former staffers told Eater that Langello’s kitchen also fostered an environment where others felt emboldened to join in on the abuse. A different woman, who worked in the kitchen several years ago, alleges that one of Langello’s chefs targeted her for more than a year. “I would cry every day before going to work,” she said. In one particularly bad instance, the chef starting making lewd noises at her; he explained that he was mimicking what he imagined she would sound like if her boyfriend beat her, she recalled. She eventually quit after deciding that reporting the behavior was not a viable option. Langello declined to comment.
Isaac Franco Nava, a former pastry chef at Babbo, who is Mexican and openly gay, claims that he was harassed by a male manager and two chefs, though not by Langello. While working at the restaurant, from November 2015 to April 2017, he alleges that men regularly called him racist and homophobic slurs, including “faggot,” “stupid Mexican,” and “parajo” — derogatory Spanish slang for gay. Franco Nava is suing Babbo, Batali, and B&B Hospitality Group, along with his alleged abusers, for harassment, which he calls “open and notorious.” His time at Babbo ended when he was fired; he alleges it was in retaliation for filing formal complaints. (B&B declined to comment on pending litigation.)
Other restaurants were also home to repeated misconduct, former and current staffers allege. Pintens, who left Del Posto earlier this year, alleges that one manager would regularly comment that women shouldn’t be made captains — the most senior level of server — “because they cried,” she recalls he said. She also alleges that she witnessed him telling a female staffer something like, “Is your boyfriend not taking care of you?” implying that her bad mood resulted from a lack of sex. Five other current and former staffers confirmed that this manager regularly behaved inappropriately toward women; he would sometimes ask women if they were on their period if they became emotional and called them “bitches.” One former male manager told Eater that women reported the staffer as “lewd” and “degrading,” though they did not want to file formal complaints; several female staffers refused to work with him.
Women had complaints about other staffers at Del Posto, too. When Pintens told other female coworkers about the incident where a line cook grabbed her, they opened up about their own harassment at the hands of other male employees, she said. From those conversations, Pintens learned a common tactic used by Del Posto staffers to avoid men who acted inappropriately: They found “escape routes” out of the restaurant, she said. “The restaurant has lots of different exits and entrances, and they made it a point of changing up their paths, to steer clear of these guys,” she said. “But, you know, I had this moment like, Wow, why do we have to do this? Is this the only way we can avoid this behavior? It just seemed nuts to me.”
A core problem at B&B is that a certain class of managers and chefs seemed “untouchable,” numerous current and former staffers told Eater. It was so common for men who were repeatedly accused of misconduct to remain in the B&B world — they were sometimes moved to another restaurant, or simply promoted — that the phenomenon was described by several people as “the B&B shuffle.” (B&B said that it transfers both men and women among restaurants as “a key way to retain talent” and is “proud of this record.”)
Langello has been at Babbo since 2000 and executive chef since 2002. (He was sued for harassment in 2012, but the suit was dismissed. B&B Hospitality said in a statement that it could not comment on individual personnel, though it noted that Langello has undergone sexual harassment training.) At Del Posto, the manager whose behavior Pintens and other staffers described above remained at the restaurant for years, and was promoted, even though his degrading behavior toward women was well-known, multiple former and current Del Posto staffers allege. (The Del Posto manager no longer works for the company; the nature of his departure is not clear. B&B, which was informed of the man’s name, declined to comment, citing confidentiality for individual staff.)
A former Lupa employee named Taylor Mauch, who worked there from 2008 to 2010, first as a host, then as a maitre d’, said while she generally had a good experience, there was a different manager there for a period who actively made her uncomfortable — cornering her and complimenting her “to the point of being harassing,” she said. A former male employee who worked with Mauch confirmed that the same manager constantly made inappropriate comments about women and sex — even propositioning people for threesomes — after the employee asked him several times to stop. The manager had been moved to Lupa from Del Posto; a staffer confirmed the man had issues there as well. (The manager left the company in 2009. B&B declined to comment, again citing confidentiality for individual staff.)
In a statement, B&B said that every staffer receives an employee handbook when they are hired, which includes a policy on how people can report complaints. The company also said that employees have previously used the system, and B&B has “taken action against those who violated our sexual harassment policies, including terminating people.”
But both men and women who worked at the company within the last 15 years told Eater that complaining to human resources was implicitly discouraged. When Mauch was a victim of alleged misconduct at Lupa, she said she did not know where to turn. “I was only 23 at the time, and I know I complained to coworkers, but I don’t even remember ever being told anything about how I could complain to HR or who I’d even contact at HR,” she said.
Former Babbo pastry chef Franco Nava’s lawsuit against the company alleges that his firing was in retaliation for filing complaints. “It was just awful,” Franco Nava told Eater. “It’s a very unprofessional kitchen. Batali knows exactly what’s going on, and he doesn’t care.”
“It’s understood that you’re expendable,” Lisandra Bernadet, who worked as a server at Lupa from 2013 to 2014, told Eater. “If you don’t like it, there will be some other girl to take your place.”
Ultimately, sources said that the environment made it difficult to advance as a woman and led some people to quit rather than file formal complaints, including Pintens and one former Babbo staffer. “There is no way I wanted to go to HR,” the former Babbo employee told Eater. “You are marked as a social pariah — everyone knows who you are if you complain in this industry.”
To Bernadet, the larger issue was that “as a young woman in the restaurant industry, you have a lot to deal with, with male customers being abusive to you — and who am I going to turn to for support?” she said. “The general manager who makes sexist jokes? The guy who owns the company and leers at me and tells me I’m beautiful?”
Some people are trying to help change this culture, staffers said. Pintens, the former Del Posto server, said that the restaurant’s executive chef, Melissa Rodriguez — who’s been at the helm since February 2017 and is one of the few female executive chefs in the male-heavy fine dining world — spoke to her after she complained about the line cook’s behavior. While Pintens appreciated the conversation and felt Rodriguez took the complaint seriously, it was not enough to balance out the general experience at the restaurant and the initial dismissiveness of the manager, she said. “It was just the last straw,” Pintens said. “The female leadership thing at Del Posto is a bit of a facade; it’s still mostly men. The ‘boys will be boys’ attitude is very real, and it trickles down from the top of the company, from Mario and Joe.”
Over the last two weeks, Bastianich has made a point of visiting every restaurant in the B&B empire to condemn Batali’s behavior and to assure employees that the businesses will run normally despite Batali’s alleged misconduct and leave of absence. But for some staffers, it’s not a black-and-white, “good cop, bad cop” situation with Bastianich and Batali, they said. Multiple staffers said that while the men were different, they also considered them “two peas in a pod.”
For years, the two could be found together, drinking for hours at wild parties at their restaurants, creating a “bacchanalia” atmosphere, sources said. Bastianich himself, in his 2012 memoir Restaurant Man, calls the two of them “hooligans” while describing their early years of drunken escapades. Later on, the restaurateur writes about partying with Batali until 6 a.m. at The Spotted Pig, where the New York Times reported numerous Batali indiscretions. “Some of the parties might have been behind closed doors, but they flaunted their lifestyle,” said a former employee who worked at two B&B restaurants in the mid-2000s and was there working for some of those parties. “The attitude was that rules didn’t apply to them, they could do whatever they wanted.” That kind of behavior set a certain tone, causing some employees to feel like they had to ignore misconduct or that complaining about similar behavior from other staffers would be fruitless, they said.
One male manager who worked at Carnevino in Las Vegas during the 2010s told Eater that while he was originally thrilled to get a job with Batali and Bastianich, he left feeling “disgusted.” He said that it was very clear that there was a “boys’ club” and to get into that club, you felt pressure “to hang,” which meant drinking heavily with the two partners when they would come into town. He also claims to have seen Batali inappropriately touch employees while visibly intoxicated, but felt there was little he could do. “I felt so ashamed that the hostesses I hired were being manhandled right in front of me,” he said. “I was young, I was in my 20s, and I felt like I was powerless.” Moving ahead as a woman in the company meant that, for many, “you either had to tolerate or turn a blind eye to bad behavior,” he said.
In more recent years, the partners have been spotted together less frequently, since Bastianich started traveling more and judging more episodes of MasterChef. Even though the two have drifted apart, multiple managers, along other current and former employees, said that they couldn’t imagine how Bastianich would not be aware of Batali’s inappropriate behavior. In Restaurant Man, Bastianich details how much of a team he and Batali are, calling them “tag-team champs” and a “pure partnership” at Babbo. He writes about how the two of them curated every detail at the restaurant, with him running the front of house and Batali running the kitchen. Together, they took research trips to Italy, decided which guests would get which tables and what music played, and, sometimes after closing the restaurant, “let the party really get started.”
Restaurant Man also provides a window into the language that Bastianich uses to talk about women. He refers to “banging” women and advises the reader to target “Dutch and Australian chicks” when looking for “action” on the road in Italy, since they are the “low-hanging fruit”; Italian women, on the other hand, are tough, he writes. In another section, he writes that while it’s “not cool” to talk about attractiveness as a reason for hiring someone, you want hot guys and girls “with a nice set of tits” to be the bartenders, noting that a hostess is generally just an “hourly gig for a pretty girl.”
In a statement to Eater, Bastianich said that his memoir, which was hailed by food-world celebrity Anthony Bourdain as “a terrific trench-level primer on the biz,” was “written in a voice meant to entertain — it in no way, shape, or form reflects how I do business and work with my team,” Bastianich said. “It would be wrong to take excerpts from my book, place them in the context of this past week’s stories, and suggest they now say something about the way I treat our employees.” (In a a 2013 interview, Bastianich said about the book, “Restaurant Man is kind of the story, an unabridged story of what happened in my life, the good bad and ugly. Some people might glean some life lessons. It is honest, not written as a press release. I think if you read the book you can understand what has made me, the son of an immigrant.”)
Even when Bastianich showed up at restaurants without Batali, he sometimes toed the line of appropriateness, multiple staffers allege. Though people who spoke with Eater said they were not aware of Bastianich touching women inappropriately, his behavior was repeatedly described as “sleazy” — including flirting with female staffers to the point where they felt uncomfortable, sources who worked at multiple B&B restaurants said. A former Del Posto manager who worked there within the last five years said that hostesses sometimes asked to be moved to different tasks when Bastianich showed up, because the restaurateur’s flirtations made them uncomfortable; a hostess at another restaurant said that when she worked there around 2013, Bastianich openly flirted with her and once encouraged her to drink while on her shift.
Bastianich denied flirting with staff, saying that he tried to “be friendly” to “put people at ease.” He also said in the statement that he implemented a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding drinking on duty more than 10 years ago, and denied that he encouraged drinking at work.
In response to the allegations about the company, B&B Hospitality says that it’s putting several new policies in place in hopes of improving the environment. Bastianich also apologized that he “didn’t devote enough time to the business,” and promised to take action to make sure people feel comfortable filing complaints, though “the central goal is to develop the right culture where employees don’t have to file complaints.” Silverton’s promotion heartened at least two former employees, and Rodriguez’s recent rise to executive chef at Del Posto has also signaled positive changes for some staffers, who say she’s been responsive to sexual misconduct issues.
But for some women, the company’s behavior has already put an end to their relationship with B&B. Pintens said that while the misconduct she experienced at Del Posto “appalled” her, it was the company’s reaction to her complaints that prompted her departure. When she went to quit, management offered her a promotion, she said. She left anyway: “It would have meant a lot for my career, but it wasn’t worth it.”
“I’ve been in this industry for 15 years,” she said. “I think it’s time we stop tolerating this behavior.”
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Edited by Serena Dai and Matt Buchanan
Fact checked by Samantha Schulyer
Photo illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown; photos by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images, Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images, and Martin Barraud/Getty Images